I’m hilarious. …Wait, that came out wrong.
I make myself laugh. I’d like to think that I’m a fairly funny guy, with an above-average sense of humor. I’ve always had an interest in comedy as an artform. Now, I’m no scholar on the field*, and I didn’t exactly grow up surrounded by Pryor and Carlin albums. But I’ve bought a fair number of comedy CDs, I’ve watched more than my share of stand-up, and I’ve attended a number of live shows.
*Though randomly, I did write a college essay on the career of vaudeville-era comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
I have always been drawn to irreverence: it was Norm MacDonald’s time as a Weekend Update anchor that made me a convert for life, and I devoutly watched both Married… with Children and The Simpsons growing up. In fact, I developed a friendship with a guy in high school largely revolving around one question: “Did you watch The Simpsons last night?” New episode or repeat: it didn’t matter. We’d sit around recalling setups and punch-lines and laugh all over again.
It’s amazing how formative those years are. I still retain Simpsons memories 20 years later, and in fact just two years ago spent the better half of an evening dredging them up with a friend on a restaurant patio. While causality must have operated in both directions, my love of those shows – along with Seinfeld – has contributed in no insignificant amount to the me who existed then and the me who exists now, to my perspectives on humor and entertainment and life.
I’ve always been someone who’s struggled with purpose, with existential questions and ambition and long-term plans and everything else. I suppose this makes me no different from most anybody. But I’ve responded by not taking life too seriously. Or at all. And as a result, as a coping mechanism or whatever, I actively seek humor in life. I figure if I’m going to be here, I might as well derive some semblance of enjoyment from it. And laughter, sometimes, is all I’ve got.
My irreverence has emerged time and again in my various creative outlets, in my presence on social media, in just about every aspect of my life except the professional side of things. I’ve never thought about performing though.* I’m a shy kid, and my lone semester in middle school drama never awoken any deep urges or anything. And nothing has changed since. I’m a writer first and foremost, and my ambition has remained in that sphere.
*Other than the standard “I want to be famous” dream that we L.A.-types have in our DNA.
But this year I am spending in Japan has been quite exceptional in a number of ways. I have been prone to a lot of self-reflection. And by virtue of not speaking the language, of experiencing somewhat of a quarter-life crisis, as well as other variables, vulnerability has become somewhat of the norm for me here in this life. And thus, after attending an English-language open mic night, I decided stand-up was something I wanted to try at least once.
I read a bunch of articles with advice for first-timers. Then, in one evening, I quickly jotted down a three-minute set that centered on a fictionalized version of myself. Observational humor and such. I circulated a first draft to my friends via e-mail, incorporated their feedback into a new iteration, and then practiced countless times. I did a run-through for a friend, made more changes based on her advice, and had basically a near-final version a week before the performance.
The final week then was just a lot of practice, with some fine-tuning of phrases and the like. I felt okay about the whole endeavor – my years in academia and as a teaching assistant had prepared me for public speaking better than most, though I’ve never been great at it (and my last presentation was nearly a year ago). What made me really nervous was the idea of being judged for my sense of humor, which I had come to believe was, if not quite beyond reproach, then something close to that.
I slept all right the night before, though not great. I did dry-heave in the morning – which has apparently become a thing on important days now. I was nervous, but I kept reminding myself that I felt confident about my material.* Even beyond that, I knew this was something I wanted to do, a sharp contrast to my 45 minute presentations about nuclear proliferation. In short, I was nervous, yes, but I was also excited. It was a neat feeling.
*With the same aforementioned high school friend, strangely enough, we had a habit of semi-ironically yelling “CONFIDENCE!” to ourselves before doing certain things – taking a test, shooting a basketball, etc. I couldn’t get that out of my mind.
The room was unsurprisingly small, a shoebox basement bar in Ebisu. There was a crowd of about 15, including a couple of friends. Seven or eight people performed; I went third. It was nerve-racking. I held onto the microphone with two hands for far too long, as if holding on for dear life. Someone later told me I didn’t even move the mic stand from directly in front of me, providing an unintended distraction. But I remembered my whole set, didn’t fudge any lines, and didn’t say ‘um’ too much.
And I did fine. Even well, perhaps. I got laughs throughout, with one particular joke killing, and only one line that really fell flat. I finished, accepted the applause, dorkily high-fived my friends, and sat down relieved, half-listening to the next act. A couple of guys – including the bartender – gave me really positive feedback as the night wore on. And when I went home, I felt pretty good about having done it. That was my open mic experience.
I think I’d be open to doing it again in the future, though not in the immediate future. As nice as it was to share my material with the world (or 15 people within the world), I think I had more fun creating it. Maybe I need to do it again and again to really get good at it, to experience that rush that only performers can get. I don’t know. But truth of the matter is, I think I’m still a writer at heart. So I’m just going to try and write more jokes. For now, at least.